Red Sox hope Sale’s shaky start set­tles

Ace strug­gled with his com­mand, ve­loc­ity in Game 1 against Astros.

The Palm Beach Post - - SPORTS - Los An­ge­les Times

BOS­TON — Long be­fore be­ing ejected in the fifth in­ning for ar­gu­ing a called strike, Bos­ton Red Sox first-year man­ager Alex Cora had a dif­fer­ent prob­lem to solve Satur­day night at Fen­way Park.

He’d tabbed ace Chris Sale to start Game 1 of the Amer­i­can League Cham­pi­onship Se­ries against the Hous­ton Astros. Cora had trusted Sale to mow down the Astros and lead the Red Sox to a good start in their quest to de­throne the reign­ing World Se­ries cham­pi­ons.

But as he stood on the steps of the first base dugout, Cora watched an­other scene un­fold. Sale, the left-han­der who this year led the ma­jor leagues in walks and hits per in­nings pitched (0.86) and strike­outs per nine in­nings (13.50) de­spite mak­ing only 27 starts, strug­gled with com­mand. Sale fum­bled around for his ve­loc­ity, failed to lo­cate the di­min­ished prod­uct he was throw­ing early on and ul­ti­mately doomed the Red Sox in the Astros’ 7-2 vic­tory.

Although Sale walked the first bat­ter of the game, it was the sec-

ond in­ning that started the down­fall. He got two easy outs on five pitches to start the frame, but wound up throw­ing 34 in the in­ning. His slider kept miss­ing the spots called by catcher Sandy Leon. A 96-mph fast­ball slipped out of Sale’s grip and hit Martin Mal­don­ado on the wrist. The Astros took a 2-0 lead when Ge­orge Springer sin­gled to left field to cap an eight-pitch at-bat.

The phone in the Red Sox bullpen rang within mo­ments, set­ting off a flurry of ac­tiv­ity to bail Sale out of trou­ble. But three pitches later, Sale in­duced a ground­out from Jose Al­tuve to end the in­ning.

He re­turned to the dugout, head low­ered and steps mea­sured. Joe Kelly, who’d be­gun to warm up hur­riedly in the bullpen, took back his seat on the bench.

Sale, who pitched four in­nings and threw only 50 of 86 pitches for strikes, went out for two more frames and looked set­tled down. He yielded no other hits, Springer’s sin­gle the only knock off Sale.

By the fourth, Sale looked like the pitcher he was sup­posed to be: The one who over­came fa­tigue, made do with what he had, re­gained com­mand of his slider and drew a trio of swing and misses with the pitch af­ter getting only one bat­ter to whiff at it in the pre­vi­ous three in­nings.

Sale, 29, would have gone out for a fifth in­ning, but Cora re­fused to put him at risk.

“Ve­loc­ity-wise, he fin­ished strong,” Cora said. “But I de­cided — he wanted to go out again and I was like, ‘No, man, it’s go­ing to be a long se­ries. We need you.’ “

That the op­ti­mal ver­sion of Sale showed up at all is sig­nif­i­cant for the Red Sox. He’d been plagued by in­flam­ma­tion in his left shoul­der dur­ing the fi­nal two months of the reg­u­lar sea­son. The in­jury kept him off the mound for all but 17 in­nings af­ter July 31. When his ve­loc­ity dipped in his last Septem­ber start, alarm bells went off again. Would the Red Sox, who al­ready had ques­tion marks in the bullpen, be doomed to wade into the post­sea­son without their No. 1 starter?

Sale set­tled those fears when he gave up two runs and five hits in 5 1/3 in­nings in Game 1 of an Amer­i­can League Di­vi­sion Se­ries against the New York Yan­kees. He as­suaged any lin­ger­ing doubts about his health when he was sum­moned for the eighth in­ning of Game 4 of the ALDS and re­tired the three Yan­kees he faced. In both out­ings, his fast­ball hov­ered in his usual range of 94-95 mph.

Although he ratch­eted up the ve­loc­ity to a max of 96 mph, Sale av­er­aged just 92 mph on his fast­ball Satur­day. The per­for­mance prompted con­tin­ued ques­tion­ing of his well be­ing, even af­ter he made an ad­just­ment be­tween in­nings and righted course.

“You kinda know what you need to do when some­thing like that hap­pens,” Sale said.

His cor­rec­tion, how­ever, came too late.

Astros starter Justin Ver­lan­der scythed the Red Sox of­fense. He carved out six strike­outs, us­ing a fast­ball that topped out at 98.8 mph as his main weapon. At one point, he re­tired 10 bat­ters in a row. He gave up only two hits in six in­nings.

But Ver­lan­der, too, fell vic­tim to com­mand is­sues. He walked in one run in the fifth in­ning and watched an­other run cross the plate when his curveball to An­drew Ben­in­tendi bounced away for a wild pitch. Three of the four walks Ver­lan­der issued came in that fifth in­ning.

Un­like Sale, Ver­lan­der didn’t let the prob­lem snow­ball. He re­tired the last four bat­ters he faced and de­parted af­ter the sixth in­ning, in line for the 13th post­sea­son vic­tory of his ca­reer.

“I mean some­thing threw off my tim­ing, some­thing I’ll prob­a­bly look at,” Ver­lan­der said. “But to be able to get out of that in­ning keep us tied, not re­lin­quish the lead, that was, for me, the ball­game.”

The Red Sox couldn’t muster much against the Astros’ bullpen, ei­ther. In the fi­nal three in­nings, they reached base twice but failed to con­vert each op­por­tu­nity. In all, the Red Sox left nine on base.

But Bos­ton’s woes on of­fense do not erase this: An AL East team has not played in the World Se­ries since the Red Sox won the pen­nant in 2013. The Red Sox wound up tak­ing home that ti­tle, beat­ing the St. Louis Car­di­nals in six games.

If they were go­ing to have a chance against the top­shelf pitch­ing the Astros have de­ployed this sea­son, the Red Sox on Satur­day needed Sale to smooth their path. Sale failed.

“I think he did all that he could,” Leon said in Span­ish. “He kept us within two runs. Un­for­tu­nately, we couldn’t hit. ... I think he did ev­ery­thing he could to keep us in the game.”


Chris Sale went through a fourin­ning strug­gle against Hous­ton in Game 1 of the ALCS on Satur­day.


Chris Sale re­ceives a mound visit dur­ing the sec­ond in­ning of Game 1 of the ALCS on Satur­day against Hous­ton. The in­ning saw the Astros take a 2-0 lead over the Red Sox.

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